Cancer is the ultimate wake-up call. Not only is your body sick, your spirit is sick. A diagnosis of cancer is devastating, but it can also be an enormous opportunity to achieve true healing. Remember the well-known quote, “Cancer is a word, not a sentence.”
When I was in my mid-twenties, I sat in shock as I heard a doctor say that I had cancer. Me, a young, freewheeling, liberated lady lawyer. I. Had. Cancer. And it did indeed act as a powerful wake-up call in my life.
At the time, I was rapidly climbing the corporate ladder, but I was also an alcoholic, addicted to Valium, and often found myself waking up in strange beds. In other words, beneath the shiny persona was a deeply troubled young woman. It took cancer to stop me in my tracks, to make me take a good long look at myself, and to start the search that would eventually change the direction of my life.
What is it that is so powerful about cancer? If we can break down the power of this word, we can begin to see the light of healing beyond the darkness of the diagnosis.
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I’ve worked with thousands of individuals who have cancer and the one thing I know is that cancer is nothing more than a part of ourselves that has forgotten who it is. When we are children, we take parts of ourselves that we deem unattractive—emotional responses to situations that are unacceptable, undesirable, or just too upsetting—and push them down deep in our bodies. When we try to stuff something down, hide it away, we literally stop a part of the energetic flow in our own body. So it is with cancer: any time we shove something down and the blood flow can’t get to that area, stagnation can occur, a likely breeding ground for a tumor. A tumor is nothing more than some cells that literally have forgotten they are part of you and start to develop at their own rate.
It’s so important that you know that cancer is not a death sentence, but an invitation from your body to your psyche to integrate that forgotten part back into wholeness. It’s equally important that you know that you didn’t do anything wrong: you are not at fault; you did not bring this cancer on. Life forces and circumstances, many if not all of them out of our control, put us in situations where we turn to defense mechanisms that we learned as children that encourage us to deny parts of ourselves. Think of the cancer as a message from a part of you, asking you to bring that part back to yourself, even a part that before you deemed unlovable. It is work with that deepest part of yourself that will affect you the most. No matter what the physical result of your experience with cancer, if you do this vital work to make yourself whole, you will be the winner.
Cancer, medically speaking, is a general term we give to diseases in which abnormal cells grow, divide, and invade other tissues in the body. In a normal, healthy body, cells grow, divide, and die regularly, which allows for new cell growth. Cancer cells form when this process is disturbed in some way. The cell’s DNA mutates or is damaged, and it doesn’t die as it is supposed to. This leads the body to produce new cells when they are not needed, and these new cells form tumors. The tumors can be benign, or noncancerous, and they will not invade other tissues. Benign tumors can be removed and usually do not recur. Malignant tumors, however, are cancerous and pose a serious threat as they can spread (or metastasize) to other areas of the body.
There are over one hundred diseases that fall under the cancer umbrella, but the one thing they have in common, according to the American Cancer Society, is that the body’s own cells “grow out of control.”
Leukemia is a type of cancer that doesn’t produce tumors; it forms in the tissues that produce blood, such as bone marrow. Abnormal blood cells then enter the blood stream.
The other major categories of cancer are Sarcoma (cancers that form in bone, cartilage, fat, blood vessels, muscle, or connective tissue), Carcinoma (those that form in the skin or tissues that line organs), Lymphoma and Myeloma (those that begin in the immune system), and Central Nervous System Cancers (which start in the brain or spinal cord). According to the National Cancer Institute, there are 1,437,180 new cases of cancer diagnosed each year. There are 565,650 deaths each year.
What causes the DNA in our cells to mutate? Conventional medical wisdom tells us it is due to environmental factors, such as chemicals, toxins, tobacco smoke, or too much sunlight, or to genetic predisposition, and this would seem to be true. For example, the most prevalent type of cancer in the United States is non-melanoma skin cancer. Over one million people are diagnosed with this form of cancer each year. A leading cause is prolonged exposure to harmful sunlight without protection. This seems like a clear case of cause and effect. Of course, this has led people to stay inside, or never to go out without slathering on sunscreen—a good idea midday in summer, but a bad idea in terms of getting the sunshine Vitamin D we are all lacking these days.
But there is more to cancer than environmental and genetic causes.
A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ. – John Steinbeck
There has been no direct link discovered between stress and the development of cancer, but in my healing work with thousands of individuals, I have seen that link. Here’s how it happens: when children develop the habit of holding in their emotions, a traumatic event as an adult—like a car accident or divorce—can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of your health. Anything that makes us feel that we don’t have control over our life can throw us totally sideways. A personal tragedy may result in an excess level of stress, which can create immune deficiency. Combined with underlying personality traits and a habit of suppressing emotion, cells can start proliferating in an unhealthy way. Western Medicine requires visible proof, so they haven’t seen a link since it is difficult to quantitatively measure stress. It is also impossible to separate stress from behaviors caused by stress, such as drinking, smoking, eating poorly, and more. These factors can cause cancer too.
Cancer is not just a physical disease. It is a disease of the mind and soul as much as it is of the body.
In our society, especially in the field of medicine, we tend not to believe something unless there is test after test and study after study attesting to its “truth.” Many believe that what happens in the body is strictly physical – there must be a reason why we get sick, why we hurt, and it can be explained by science. But recently, the mind and its influence over the body have become a topic of intense interest in the medical community. We are finally realizing what ancient cultures have known all along: that there is a strong mind/body connection and what we feel has a direct relationship with how we feel.
Stress has always been a part of life: it was a survival tool for our ancestors. When faced with situations like famine, war, or animal attacks, their bodies produced adrenaline and cortisol, which gave them the added “boost” they needed to deal with the threat. Today, our bodies do the same thing, but the stress response can get out of control. A certain amount is needed to deal with difficult situations, but many of us feel stress constantly. Many people experience intense stress even when there is no direct threat or triggering event. Chronic stress has been shown to be a major factor in several diseases, particularly those related to the immune system and heart. A new thread in medical research is whether stress can cause cancer. Can an affliction of the mind produce such a big impact on the body?
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Stress also can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating, smoking, or abusing drugs or alcohol, that may affect cancer risk.” But can stress be a cause in and of itself? Several studies seem to indicate a link.
Studies have also been conducted into whether stress impacts the prognosis of people suffering from cancer. A study led by Barbara Anderson of the University of Ohio found that breast cancer patients who felt a high level of stress had fewer “natural killer cells.” Dr. Anderson said of her findings: Natural killer cells have an extremely important function with regard to cancer because they are capable of detecting and killing cancer cells. These results, although preliminary, suggest that psychological stress may play a role in how the immune system responds to cancer.
It’s clear from previous research that psychological interventions can improve the quality of life for cancer patients. The question is whether such interventions can have biological or health consequences. Psychological interventions might not only have important roles in reducing stress and improving quality of life, but also in extending survival. We need to examine this possibility more closely.
Studies done by Professor Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu of the Tel Aviv University Department of Psychology have shown that the release of stress hormones like adrenaline “underlie much of the devastating effects of surgery on immune competence.” In other words, it is not the surgery itself or the disease’s effect on tissue that compromise the immune system – it is stress. A weakened immune system often causes tumors to metastasize after surgeries. Professor Ben-Eliyahu suggests that blocking the release of these hormones and reducing stress immediately prior to, during, and after surgery will improve people’s prognoses and their chance for long-term survival.
These studies tell us that stress has a very real affect on our bodies.
Examine your lifestyle for sources of stress. Are there some stresses that you can eliminate? The best ways to clear stress from your energy field are: Get more sun; get more sleep; avoid people, places, and things that really bother you; utilize relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, prayer, and exercise; and laugh every day. De-stress in any way that works for you.
“So great a power is there of the soul upon the body, that whichever way the soul imagines and dreams, thither doth it lead the body.” – Agrippa
Despite all the research into stress and disease, we tend to see our bodies as separate entities from our minds. But take a moment to think about this: when you have experienced a difficult time, say the death of a loved one, where does it hurt? Your heart actually hurts, or your stomach is in knots, or you get migraines. Emotional pain shows up in your body. When you are nervous, do your hands sweat or shake? Do you breathe harder or feel queasy? There is a very real connection between what our minds are experiencing and what are bodies are telling us.
To understand the impact of emotions on our health, it is useful to know a little about how they interact. Many cultures around the world believe in an energy field, which surrounds everyone and everything. The energy in our bodies flows through and is regulated by chakras. Chakra comes from the Sanskrit word meaning wheel, and we can think of chakras like vacuums. They spin, taking in energy, and redirect it to the body. We have seven major chakras throughout our body, each of which is essential to our good health and well-being.
Ideally, these chakras are balanced, meaning they have just the right amount of energy flowing through them. In reality, though, our chakras become unbalanced. When this happens, it can cause us to have illness or injuries in the areas associated with the chakra.
Energy dysfunction often arises when a woman is confused about how to use both her loving (fourth chakra) and her creative (second chakra) energies optimally. The major conflict within women is that most of us still believe that in order to be loved, to receive love, and to guarantee that someone will need us, we must care for loved ones’ external physical needs.
I’ve worked with people who have cancers of every type imaginable, and I do see common patterns. For example, cancers of the reproductive organs, especially Breast Cancer, is often accompanied by feelings of having taken on too many responsibilities — total overwhelm. What
woman today doesn’t feel like she is supposed to be superwoman, finessing her job, the kids, the house, her aging parents. She has little time left over for her own needs.
This care for external needs comes at the expense of internal needs: we pay attention to the body but not the soul. And this can make us ill.
Medicine may be able to cure our physical illnesses, but healing only comes when we look at the underlying causes. What we have inside of us, inside of our minds, in our energy field, affects our bodies, and if we don’t deal with that, we can never achieve healing. True, we may eliminate physical symptoms for a time. But what we are doing is covering up wounds that go deeper than the body. It is only a matter of time before new symptoms, new illnesses, and new injuries arise.
Burying emotions, feelings, or your past has a way of catching up with you. Everything may appear to be going fine on the surface, but your body may be reminding you that you need to process and release the negative energy before your body can be truly healthy. The healing process, even for a disease as virulent as cancer, opens up when we look inside ourselves and discover what is at the root of our illness. Then we can begin the journey to making our mind, body, and spirit well. Indeed, uncovering the truths we have buried in our body can even help traditional medical treatments work better.
“One must not forget that recovery is brought about not by the physician, but by the sick man himself. He heals himself, by his own power, exactly as he walks by means of his own power, or eats, or thinks, breathes or sleeps.” – Georg Groddeck, The Book of the It
Excessive stress can be detrimental to anyone, but especially those with cancer.
One of the cardinal observations in stress research is that stress dysregulates the immune system. This area of research, called psychoneuroimmunology, has now established that stress causes suppression of cell-mediated immunity, which is a primary defense against metastasis.
In order to find emotional healing, we need to combat the stress that can threaten to overwhelm us. The ultimate goal is to discover the root of the problem. In order to get our minds and bodies to that point, we first need to calm ourselves and move into a position in which this deeper healing is possible.
These techniques and others can help your mind move into a healthier place, which is necessary before your body can follow. It may take practice before you are comfortable with techniques like imagery and deep breathing, which I teach at my healing workshops and energy medicine retreats. You may feel silly saying affirmations. That is our societal conditioning kicking in! Get past this, and you will feel benefits that extend to your mind and your body. The key is to find something that works for you, something that restores you to a sense of peace.
We all know that there are Type A or Type B personalities. People with Type A personalities are said to be unable to relax, very work-oriented, aggressive, hostile, and insecure. Type B personalities, by contrast, are said to be patient, calm, and relaxed. Some people have added a third category: the Type C personality. This is also known as the Cancer Prone Personality. This theory holds that some people’s very personalities make them susceptible to developing cancer. For instance, those who are overly cooperative, unassertive, accepting of external authority, patient, and who bury negative emotions are said to have an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with some form of cancer.
When we turn to science to see if this is true, there is no concrete answer. A recent Japanese study conducted by researchers at the Tohoku University looked at 30,000 people who were grouped according to personality: extraversion (those who were socially-oriented), neuroticism (anxious and unstable), psychoticism (aggressive, self-centered, emotionally cold), and lie (conformist, passive, naïve). There was no connection found between personality type and development or progression of cancer.
Stanford University professor David Spiegel, however, has discovered a fact that seems to support a link between personality and cancer. He found those who had joined a support group and tended to have a strong fighting spirit after their diagnosis lived on average eighteen months longer than those who didn’t join a group. Also, those who deal with cancer by displaying a sense of denial also seemed to fare better than those supposed to be Type C personalities. This is because Type C people would be resigned to their fate. They would passively accept it and believe that they had no control. They would give up, causing their bodies to give up.
An important question to ask ourselves is: Do we indeed have any control? We may think that we have no control over our bodies but, in fact, we do. Our emotions, our feelings, our energy all impact our body.
Energy Healing is an important component in the treatment of cancer. Because it can address root cause, it can help the individual focus on the underlying factors and reverse them. It also opens the channels so that treatments such as chemotherapy can work more efficiently. Conversely, it can also remove chemo from the body after it has done its work, thus reducing the toxic load on the body. I have seen many individuals sail through chemo with no side effects who worked with someone from the field of Energy Medicine simultaneously with their chemo treatments.
“When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” – Catherine Ponder, author
A diagnosis of cancer can produce many reactions, one of which is the urge to blame the disease on anyone or anything else. You may blame your genes, your lifestyle, your job, even your doctor! While it may help to direct your anger somewhere, ultimately you’ll find that it’s futile to assign blame. Especially toward yourself! Cancer is not your fault. There is no way to go back and undo any of the factors like inherited genes or exposure to pollutants or synthetic hormones. And the process of placing blame causes more emotional stress, which interferes with the healing process.
We can’t change yesterday. It is only today we can change anything. Take a deep breath and decide that you are going to let go of any connection to an external cause. The only advantage to knowing there was an outside cause is if it helps you minimize your risk today, like stopping smoking. Instead of feeling despair and anguish, feel hope for your own healing. Your body may be telling you that something is out of balance, that something more fundamental is wrong, but it is also telling you that you have the key to healing.
Part of healing, perhaps the most important part, is forgiveness. When we suffer a wrong or a perceived wrong, we can harbor intense hatred and bitterness. This can be caused by abuse, divorce, unfaithfulness, death, and other hurtful situations that we never resolve. Not only can this energy discord cause our illness (the heart chakra is associated with ailments ranging from asthma and pneumonia to lung and breast cancer), it can impede our progress towards healing.
Holding onto resentments and anger can ruin your quality of life. The only person who suffers from your failure to forgive is you; unfortunately, it is not the other guy. When we stay hostile or resentful, it tears down our immune system and increases our risk of disease. Get some help if you are troubled by a situation like a bad divorce or a child who went astray. Whatever the circumstance is in your life, you can let go of it. Also, forgive yourself for whatever unhealthy lifestyle or emotional baggage you feel may have precipitated the disease. Self-blame doesn’t help in healing.
Nearly every religion teaches that forgiveness is a virtue: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” What ancient cultures have known for centuries is now becoming accepted by Western medicine. Numerous studies have found links between forgiveness and health.
Forgiving others does not mean you excuse what they did. It means that you let go of the bitterness and the negativity. It means that you let go of your need for revenge or retribution. Many people equate forgiveness with weakness: they think that it means that you forget what has happened. In order for true healing, however, forgetting is as detrimental as not forgiving. You need to process what has happened, experience your emotions, and then find the strength to move on from there. Burying it will only cause disruption in your mind, body, and spirit.
Forgiveness does not mean we have to put ourselves in the position to be hurt again, or even that we like the person who hurt us. Forgiveness requires us to get in touch with our pain and try to get to the point where we feel empathy instead of anger.
In May of 1981, Pope John Paul II was driven into St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Adored by millions of Catholics all over the world, the Pope became a hero to many for his tremendous heroism. On this day, he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope survived this attempted assassination and went on to visit Ali Agca in prison.
Not only did he forgive Ali Agca, he took his hands in his own and called him “brother.” The Pope obviously did not forget the terrible ordeal he had been through, nor had he failed to learn from it. After the attempted assassination, for instance, the Pope no longer traveled in his open-air “Popemobile.” He did, however, understand that his life was chained to Ali Agca’s, and if he did not forgive, he would never be free.
Forgiving is tremendously difficult, and for victims of incest, severe abuse, and violence, it can seem impossible. The important thing to remember is that it is for you that you are forgiving the other.
Sometimes, individuals who have been diagnosed as terminal may feel: I have so little time left and I don’t want to be angry and depressed and bitter any more. So they let go of those old feelings and they start to talk to people that maybe they’ve shut out of their life for many years. Sometimes, the next thing you know is they’ve had a remission.
“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated.” — Plato
When we talk about healing, we refer to more than just bodily cures. Yes, we may “cure” an illness, but are we healed? Healing encompasses our mind, spirit, and body. How do we achieve this balance? We discussed techniques for dealing with stress surrounding a cancer diagnosis and treatment: these can be used with traditional medical practices to augment treatment. When we face something as serious as cancer, we should take a balanced approach with our eyes towards healing, not just curing.
While conventional (allopathic) medicine has focused on the physical treatment of cancer, complementary and alternative modalities offer other benefits. I recommend that individuals use their own intuition, listen to their heart, and choose the modalities that they feel will work best for them. I encourage each person to listen closely to the diagnosis (but not prognosis!) of conventional medicine and if surgery is recommended, by all means, follow that directive. (Be sure to get a second or even third opinion in every case.)
It has been my experience that by the time a problem has festered to the point that a cancer exists, we need all hands on deck to remove it – a surgeon to remove the tumor, an oncologist for stray cells, an acupuncturist to help maintain balance, and a practitioner of Energy Medicine to address the core issues so that the cancer doesn’t return. Other treatments that can be helpful are homeopathy for the root physical cause, naturopathy for overall balance, a nutritionist to build strength and decrease the toxic load, and tai chi, yoga, relaxation methods, and massage.
The use of counseling or psychotherapy can also be very beneficial. When treating cancer and other serious illnesses, it is important to get to the root cause and treat the problem, not merely the symptoms. Integrative medicine allows for a beneficial cycle: our work healing our wounded minds and spirits allows our bodies to open up and receive the benefits of conventional medicine. With a stronger body, we achieve a greater energy flow, and thus a more balanced spirit and mind. They are interconnected, and more and more conventional doctors are seeing this truth.
The American Cancer Society says of complementary medicine: Some people believe that mainstream medicine is the only option they have when it comes to treating symptoms and side effects, relieving pain, and improving quality of life. Actually, there are many complementary treatment methods you can use safely, right along with your medical treatment. For example, some people find that certain complementary methods — such as aromatherapy, biofeedback, massage therapy, meditation, tai chi, or yoga — are very useful to help control some of their symptoms and improve the quality of their lives.
They treat the mind and spirit, which in turn is essential to the body’s health. A basic tenet of complementary medicine is that the body has the ability to heal itself. Practitioners are there to guide us through this process.
To aid us in our goal of achieving greater balance in our energy centers, various techniques and therapies are available. Let’s quickly look at the most prominent.
These are just some of the many complementary techniques that are available for cancer patients. As a sign that our society is finally realizing that the mind plays an integral role in the body’s health, more and more doctors are referring patients for complementary therapies, and medical schools now offer training in CAM (complementary and alternative medicine). Even the insurance companies are coming on board as they are beginning to cover many of these therapies. The United States government even established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The NCCAM is committed to studying the efficacy of CAM, training researchers, and providing coherent, thorough information to physicians and patients. All of these are positive signs that our society is being to understand the importance of healing, not just curing.
And, as extraordinary as it may sound, cancer can be healing in itself. The following cancer survivors have offered their views of their struggles and their triumphs:
Marianne Faithfull, an English actress and singer, has said of her recovery from breast cancer, “It has been an extraordinary experience and, in many ways, extremely positive.”
Lance Armstrong, world renowned bicyclist and hero to many, has said of his battle with cancer, “The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, and a father.”
And…”If there is a purpose to the suffering that is cancer, I think it must be this: it’s meant to improve us.”
These people and millions others have found healing in the midst of suffering. They did not merely experience a “cure” for their cancer: they found lasting, purifying strength that led to healing of the body and mind. I know it’s true, because it happened for me too.
Let’s recall the words, “Cancer is a word, not a sentence.” Perhaps, though, it should be. Not a death sentence, but a sentence that mandates that we find balance and peace in our lives.
ACS (American Cancer Society) National Cancer Information Center
A reliable source of trained cancer information specialists who answer questions about cancer, connect you with local resources, and give information on local events.
The Gilda’s Club philosophy of providing an emotional and social support community as an essential complement to medical treatment when cancer is in the family enables the organization to serve as a beacon for the provision of health care services in the 21st Century
Patient Advocate Foundation
The Patient Advocate Foundation offers help for patients who have been diagnosed with a chronic, life-threatening or debilitating disease and are having trouble with the healthcare system, which can include specific issues regarding insurance, job retention and/or debt.
Patients who need the services provided by the Patient Advocate Foundation should call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345 to be quickly connected to professional case managers and attorneys, who specialize in mediation, negotiation, education, and advocacy. These specially trained case managers work directly with patients and families to help overcome barriers to care. All services are confidential and free to the patient.